The Blueberry Years
A Memoir of Farm and Family
By Jim Minick
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Jim Minick
All rights reserved.
Meeting the Berries
Two hours before sunset, I pick up the jarring phone to hear this: "Uh, Mr. Minick? I got your blueberries on my rig." In the background, I hear the huge engine idling. "I'm sitting here in Riner and I can't see your farm. Been driving back and forth for the past hour trying to find it. Where are you?"
This from an eighteen-wheel truck driver hauling our precious bushes all the way from Michigan to Virginia; this from Riner, the town that happens to be our mailing address, a one-street village twelve miles away; this from an order we placed six months earlier, sending in a whopper check from our wimpy bank account. The canceled check is the only proof that we might receive plants. Without any confirmation call, we have no idea if the shipment of 1,000 bushes will come on our preferred date of April 1, 1995. When April 1 arrives, we answer this call and feel like fools.
I tell the driver to park at the Riner convenience store, where Sarah and I meet him twenty minutes later. A round, balding man climbs down from the silver rig chewing on a toothpick. He seems friendly enough, but his shoulders sag a little when I tell him we have another 12 miles to go, away from the interstate. He explains that he has an order waiting for pickup in Atlanta, 400 miles away, by the next day.
His teenage son, along for company, scoots back into the sleeping compartment. I grab the chrome and climb the three steps into the leather-upholstered cab where I ride shotgun. In the mirror I watch Sarah in our compact red car get in behind this monster — no one told us it would be a big rig. So far below this rolling giant, Sarah looks even tinier than she is. What are we in for? I keep wondering to myself. I can't see the furrow between her brows, but I know it's there, know she is wondering the same.
I direct the driver through the maze of country roads, traveling several miles on Route 8, the main artery into Floyd County, and then turning right onto Alum Ridge. We lean into the long curves on these two highways, the driver downshifting on the steep inclines, the back of the long rig crossing the yellow lines on the sharpest curves. These roads, at least, have yellow lines.
"This sure is pretty country," the driver muses, but I also hear a hint of worry in his voice, his Michigan eyes used to straight roads, few hills, no mountains. All the while, between the small talk, I keep speculating where I'm going to get him and his rig to turn around. I know where I want to unload the berries, down by the stream below the house where we can water them until I finish getting the field ready. But we're talking skinny roads, graveled when the county can afford it, traveled by the mailman and school bus, nothing bigger. And after we unload, where would we get this huge tractor trailer turned to face the other way?
Another five miles and I tell him to slow for the next right onto Lester Road. This one is paved, but has no lines. He makes the wide arcing turn and I sense his worry intensify. "How far back in here do you live?" he asks. Three more miles, I tell him, hoping he'll hear the nonchalance in my voice. He is driving slowly now, his arms hugging the wide steering wheel. Too slowly.
We're heading directly into a mountain-framed sunset, but the driver doesn't notice. Then a mile down Lester, two miles from our new farm, the hardtop ends. The driver brakes hard, stopping in the loose gravel. He rolls down his window, looks around, and spits out his toothpick. He glances across the gear shift to me, then stares out the windshield before saying, "This is as far as we go." I try to convince him to drive on, knowing from our brief conversation that he's maneuvered this rig through the tight alleys of New York City. I explain that our neighbor sometimes drives his logging equipment down this dirt road, but I can tell from his steady stare that he won't budge.
At the fork in the road where Lost Bent Creek turns off, where we should be heading, the driver backs his trailer, jimmying the hind end around. In less than two minutes, he has faced the still-loaded rig the wrong way, back toward Riner. He pulls over by a wide spot on the side, looks at a grassy shoulder next to a pasture fence, and says, "Can we unload here?" It is not really a question. I tell him I don't know, but will have to check with the neighbor who lives across the road. I get out, leaving the door open to let him feel some of the cold April air. Sarah waits beside the car where I tell her the predicament. Together, we open the white picket gate to a small, neatly kept bungalow.
We've never met Mrs. Allen, but were told that her late husband plumbed our house fifteen years before we bought it. She greets us at the door, a little startled to find a tractor trailer parked in front of her house. We introduce ourselves and tell her why the truck sits there blocking her view. She nods, slowly smiles, and says that unloading there would be fine. The seeds of our dream farm, now waiting in the cavern of a trailer, will sit precariously by the side of the road, all $2,500 of them free for someone else's taking. It is our only choice.
Mr. Friendly Driver has turned more businesslike; he wants to move on. His son has already opened the trailer doors, and the driver puts on his gloves, ready to grab plants and get them off. By the dimness of overhead lights, I climb in and begin to unload.
Our plants are tucked against the front end of the trailer, all neatly stacked three high, the last small part of his load. With a flashlight, I try to inspect these babies we are about to adopt, try to get a sense of their number and kind, but all I see are six-inch twigs in gallon pots of dirt. This is what I paid so much money for? In her yellow ball cap, Sarah has climbed in behind me. She takes off a glove and scratches the stem of one of these twigs. Her thumbnail fills with inner bark, the green tissue affirming the dormant life within.
Then we begin searching for labels, finding a few bushes with NELSON and BLUECROP on them, but only a few. To save money, it looks like the company has only attached the plastic bands on a fourth of the 1,000 plants, stringing together all of the unlabeled to the labeled. And given how these potted sticks are all stacked on top of each other, there is no way to count them, really, until we've unloaded. I cuss under my breath.
This initial greeting between soon-to-be "parents" and twiggy "children" lasts less than two minutes. The trucker and his son already have started hauling the pots to the back of the truck, and we realize if we want to keep any order to this chaos, we'd better start hauling and organizing. Now.
So we walk the fifty feet of the bed again and again, pinching the edges of black pots three in each hand, carrying all we can. On the ground, Sarah and the son carry the pots from truck bed to road bank, scurrying in the dimming light. In all of this, we call out what labels we can read, what labels exist.
We've ordered six varieties, and because of their different ripening times (early, midseason, and late), we want to keep like with like. Otherwise, we'll roam the field with our pickers, never sure of the next ready bush. I call out "Berkeley" or "Spartan" every time I can, and Sarah tries to steer the helper to the right group. The driver mentions again his next load in Georgia, so we finish quickly, try to double-check our numbers, and sign his sheet. Then we watch his rear lights glow around the bend.
What possessed two young schoolteachers to buy ninety acres of woodland and sink all of their capital, and a lot of the bank's, into digging dirt? We ask ourselves this as we water bushes, grub tree roots, fork wet mulch. We have stellar grade point averages and degrees from respected institutions — didn't they teach us better? Not really, though what we want to learn, we realize later, isn't what they teach. And after college graduation, we work enough in our "career" fields (business and education) to know we want something more, something else.
We pursue that something else by moving to Floyd County, Virginia. Really, we move so that I can escape a job I hate, teaching high-school English in suburban Maryland. I enroll in the master's program at Radford University while Sarah begins her teaching career in a small, country elementary. When I graduate with my MA in 1991, Radford hires me on, so we decide to stay. Sarah likes her job well enough, and we both love the mountains and valleys, the rural nature of land and people, the fertile possibilities.
Eventually we realize that something else we want is to stay home and pursue "the good life" like Helen and Scott Nearing, our new heroes and "preachers" of this lifestyle in their 1954 classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. We want to write and make baskets, grow most of our own food, and follow a dream we call homesteading. The farm, we hope, will allow this, and the berries will be our cash crop, our money-maker to pay taxes and other expenses. In the long run we hope our art will bring in some money as well.
In the meantime, teaching will have to fund the homesteading dream. Every morning we drive our separate ways: Sarah to teach kindergarteners, and I to struggle with college freshmen and sophomores; she to wade through the sniffles and first discoveries of words, me to wade through stacks of grading and moments of insight and clarity. Our summers off give us enough nibbles of freedom to want the whole year to ourselves, to be our own bosses. And why not? The stress we carry home from school makes us realize that this homesteading life will probably be a lot healthier, too. We hope.
The next day, a Sunday, we journey in our pickup past the Mennonite church at the end of our road to travel on to our new house of worship, the church of Vaccinium corymbosum, the high order of the highbush, with Berkeley and Nelson serving as deacons, Blueray and Bluecrop members of the choir, and Spartan and Patriot the ushers for the day. In the bright clear light of spring we pause from the immense work before us to greet these new friends. And in this light, I begin to see that they are much more than just sticks in pots of dirt; the stems fill with bright colors, some vibrant yellow and red, some pea green. I kneel among the pots and realize each variety has its own peculiar shape, the Berkeley tall and stout, the Bluecrop tall and skinny, the others differing in size with the Nelson the shortest and roundest of the six varieties.
Last night as we unloaded, Sarah had kept like with like, and this morning, as we inspect the clustered varieties more closely, we find a few unlabeled pots that don't seem to fit their cluster, but only a handful out of a thousand. We pick up pots and compare them with labeled ones, asking each other's opinions. The more I look and touch each plant, the more I also see each is different from the others in the same variety, a bending branch on a Blueray peculiarly unique, a V-shaped notch on the next bush its own signature.
But the detailed differences vanish when I stand in the bed of the truck and look at the mass from a distance. This is a congregation of individuals, for sure, but they are all only one or two years old, children really, waiting to root and grow into adulthood. Blueberries can live for over fifty years. What kind of chorus will this choir raise in 2045? And will we be here to join in, to lift our own voice in this song of blue?
What took four people an hour to unload takes Sarah and me a full day to haul the two more miles to our farm. What filled only a minute portion of the tractor trailer fills our pickup five times as we haul and drive, load and unload. We pinch pots again, cramping our fingers and heaving the weight onto the truck bed. Then on the bank of Lost Bent Creek, we unload and sort into clusters by variety, 167 Patriot here, 168 Spartan there. We've picked a small space to waylay them for now, a narrow strip of land between the stream and our new farm road. I soak my feet and pull up five-gallon buckets of cold water while Sarah dips quart containers from bucket to plant, soaking the roots and soil, the dripping water sparkling in the sun.
The best time to plant blueberries is late spring, right before they break dormancy. It is April 2, the ideal time, but the bushes sit here by the stream where we water them once a week. They have to wait because the field, that vast opening in the woods a half mile farther up our lane, that center of our homesteading dream, isn't ready yet.
And we both have to return to our day jobs tomorrow.
Meeting the Field
We first journeyed down this road that the trucker refused to travel in the fall of 1991, four years before we planted blueberries. And that's how our life seemed to define itself now: before berries and after berries. Before we had these wild ideas, after we had these 1,000 wild realities. Before we could travel as we saw fit, after we could only travel on the farm road between house and field, back and forth, back and forth. We didn't have kids, just 2 mutts and 1,000 young blueberries.
In 1991, we first encountered the field and the farm that it centered, and that would eventually center us. To call it a field then would be to speak of its history, for when we walked it with Jesse Moore, the owner's son, we really walked around it looking in. The field wasn't a pasture of grass full of grazing bovines, nor was it a plowed, fallow cropland waiting for spring planting. No, this field was full of pine trees, mostly spindly leaning bull pine, many bent and crossed, damaged by ice and wind. Some farmer last worked this field forty years ago, and in those intervening four decades the surrounding forest had filled the void, taken over, converting three-inch grass blades to thirty-foot timber. So instead of wading through thick green meadow, we skirted the dense thicket of scaly brown trees. We hiked along the rotted remains of a split-rail fence that once separated cows from corn, which now kept the bull pines from charging into the mature stands of oak and hickory.
But we still fell in love, despite these faults. Like infatuated lovers, we overlooked the flaws of this new partner. Sure, we acknowledged that no good road existed to the field and that we didn't know how we'd clear these scrub trees or what we'd do with them once down. We saw these things out of the sides of our eyes, only looking directly at what we wanted to. Which was plenty.
The field itself seemed to lay well, with a steep grade at the lower side, but the top was flat enough for tilling or building. We just had to figure out how to drive there. With an old survey plat, we estimated that the original field held eight to ten acres of tillable land, plenty for us to begin.
The farm came with a spring and three small creeks, some good timber, and some other abandoned fields that could be cleared in the future. And it came with a long history, like an ancient book filled with the remnants of earlier homesteaders. On one ridge, we found the rotted remains of a log cabin next to gnarled apple trees. In the valley, we tiptoed on stepping stones across Lost Bent Creek, a stream named after a Mr. Bent. Sometime in the 1800s, Bent lay down to drink from its cold water, and for some reason died there; he wasn't found for several months. Though we never knew him, we remembered his lostness every time we mentioned this creek.
By this brook, a barn and four sheds — some useable, some too rotted — circled a small, beautiful, hundred-year-old house. We looked in each building, checked foundations, and wondered about ghosts. The house, like most old dwellings, needed work, but Sarah and I had a place to live while we focused our energies on blueberries.
A month after walking around the field and through the house, we signed the papers, took on our largest debt ever, and moved into our new home the first of the year 1992. Of the ninety acres, only the garden was cleared and tillable, but still we owned land and the makings of a farm.
I think I bleed blue. Not the blue blood of snobby aristocrats or the long rich, nor even the blue of fanatic sports fans. Genetically, it seems, blueberries have flowed in my family's blood for several generations. And this, for the longest time, helped Sarah believe I knew what I was doing.
Long before my birth, my grandparents and great-grandparents picked huckleberries on Blue and Kittatinny Mountains in Pennsylvania. I've heard stories of the long wagon rides up rough roads, the empty lard pails slowly filling from a secret patch, and the sweet voices singing hymns through the long afternoon. I'm guessing this tradition happened every summer even before my grandfather, Arthur, the only child, was born in 1907. And at some point, the huckleberry patch high in the mountains disappeared or my grandfather tired of the journey. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Blueberry Years by Jim Minick. Copyright © 2010 Jim Minick. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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